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For over forty years, Judy Grahn’s poems, novels, and non-fiction works have shaped feminist and LGBTQ consciousness. Her literary and theoretical output is formidable. Grahn is one of the greatest lesbian-feminist and queer theorists living today. In her new memoir, A Simple Revolution (Aunt Lute), Grahn delights readers with a book that artfully blends memoir, history, theory, and activism.
Near the end of A Simple Revolution, Judy Grahn writes, “the tenets we had held of a simple revolution are both subtle and crucial.” These words—subtle and crucial—aptly describe the revolutionary period that Grahn chronicles. A Simple Revolution begins with Grahn’s childhood, illuminating the foundations of her poetic imagination, but focuses particularly on her life and activism during the 1970s. Subtle and crucial describe the insights that Grahn provides in the memoir and the graceful style of Grahn’s prose. How Grahn tells the stories in A Simple Revolution, her attention to the visual and the sensory, the nuances her narrative focus—what she chooses to tell and where she chooses to ask questions instead of presenting answers—are all subtle and crucial aspects of A Simple Revolution.
Grahn begins in 1949; she is nine years old and living in Chicago, IL. The first two chapters take us through her young life, including the 1960s when Grahn came out and met other lesbians, prior to the feminist and gay liberation movements that transformed her life and the lives of people around her. These first two chapters provide crucial history—life in her family, finding her way in the world as a young woman, enlisting in the Air Force, then being kicked out for being a lesbian. With little fanfare, Grahn offers a complex examination of the issues of women’s and lesbian’s solidarity in homophobic and oppressive circumstances.
These chapters also introduce the extraordinary visual and sensory experience of reading A Simple Revolution. One controlling metaphor in the book is wind. Grahn describes the wind of Chicago as “slender like a narrow metal sword;” it “lunges” and, for a small child, “is deeply frightening.” The winds of New Mexico, on the other hand, are “fat, swelling themselves with dust particles;” they are “earth-lungs blowing enormous bags of wind-borne particles” that sand “the world clean.” While ‘winds of change’ is a trite metaphor for the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, in Grahn’s hands, wind operates metaphorically throughout the text, evoking the natural work and providing a sensory background for her experiences. Through the wind, Grahn demonstrates mastery as a poet and as a storyteller.
The incredible compassion that Grahn has for people in her life is striking throughout A Simple Revolution. At a time when memoir as a genre can turn to lurid depictions of human and familial dysfunction, Grahn chooses to tell her story with an eye to the humane, to the compassionate. Grahn shows readers the deep commitment and love that people, broken by economic and life circumstances, still share with one another. For example, describing her mother who “experienced a different set of realities, heard voices, and constantly struggled to keep her balance with this,” Grahn notes, “her suffering was palpable, sometimes relentless for months.” At one point, her mother informs her that she spent the $250 that had been saved for her college fund. In spite of this situation, Grahn revels in her mother’s “wonderful, if inexplicable and largely private, sense of humor,” and the occasions when she “had an incandescent, irresistible glow that was pure delight.” Grahn has not set out to write a tell-all saga. She does not want to indict her parents.
She never overly scrutinizes these difficult and, at times, painful relationships. Rather, she dwells consistently in the space of compassion and generosity. Judy Grahn is the poet who brought us the wonderfully satiric poem, “The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke,” which skewers playfully both the psychoanalyst and the analysand. In A Simple Revolution, Grahn refuses dramatic, psychological narratives that readers have come to expect in memoirs. What emerges is a new, deeply compelling story, grounded in honesty, humility, and compassion—compassion for herself and for the wonderful, if wounded, people who surrounded her.
This lens of compassion, what I came to think of as chesed, or loving-kindness, continues throughout the book. It is a necessity in the telling and retelling of histories of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM). In 1968, Judy Grahn and her lover, Wendy Cadden, moved to San Francisco. They arrived to a region bursting with the righteous energy of protest and an intellectual, analytical fervor. Both Grahn and Cadden engaged vigorously with the spirit and energy around them, filming mass demonstrations at People’s Park, joining a Gay Women’s Liberation group, and buying a printing press, which became the germ for the Women’s Press Collective, one of the most influential lesbian-feminist publishers of the 1970s.
Many things are powerful about Grahn’s narration of the 1970s. Two items deserve to be singled out. First, Grahn focuses ecumenically on a variety of people, activities, actions, and experiences. Grahn tells us her story woven with the stories of other women and activists. With the same compassion she gives her family, Grahn narrates stories of other activists as both extraordinary and ordinary, simple and revolutionary. Second, Grahn is keenly aware of the many conflicting and competing ideas of history, in particular the history of the WLM and gay liberation. She responds carefully and thoughtfully to these histories, analyzing the different intersecting ideologies and theories that shaped feminism, gay liberation, and other left movements. She reclaims cultural feminism as an important feminist formation. She traces the different ideologies about gender and sex that shaped different activist formations in the 1970s and that continue to echo in the LGBT movement today, particularly in relationship to transgender people and issues. Grahn’s story of the 1970s neither seeks to be authoritative nor irrefutable. Grahn does not align her memoir with a particular mode of history. Rather, through writing, Grahn strives to understand her life and her history. In A Simple Revolution, Grahn strikes an artful balance between remembering her past, the past of others, and intervening politically in how we think about history.
A Simple Revolution is not only the story of Grahn’s life; it is also a story of alliances and campaigns and of love relationships and friendships. Grahn recounts the founding of the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center and the campaign to free Inez Garcia, a woman who killed her rapist. She recalls a visit to the Frontera Women’s Prison, where she spoke with the “Manson women.” Through these stories and others, Grahn animates the dailiness of activism throughout A Simple Revolution.
Activism for Grahn, and others, is connected intimately with households. Grahn maps lesbian households in the San Francisco bay-area during the 1970s as part of an extended meditation on what constitutes a house and a home. Grahn writes:
What is a house? A cauldron of creativity and intellectual engagement. (152)
A house is a place where women are safe and their labor is valued. (153)
A crossroads for living with diverse people, and for confronting the injustice of the world. (155)
Safety for children and growing things. Loveliness. Division of household chores. Hand-stitched designs on tea towels and a child’s drawing taped up on the wall. Sharing of stories. (155)
A house is a place where a new generation has the support to envision social change and take it out into the world. (159)
Using an extended metaphor about home, what it means and what it symbolizes practically as well as emotionally, politically, and spiritually for women, Grahn situates the lesbian household as an important—and enduring—part of the lesbian-feminist revolution. Grahn’s vision is that these households are fundamental to the feminist revolution and are an articulation of the theory and practice of feminism.
Grahn writes extensively about the poet Pat Parker. Grahn’s and Parker’s work and lives intertwined through publishing, through the only poetry album released by Olivia Records in 1976, Where Would I Be Without You, and through their long friendship. It is reasonable that Parker would make a prominent appearance in this book, but Grahn’s clear-eyed accounts of Parker’s life and work extend beyond what might be expected in a memoir. Grahn provides a mini-biographical sketch of Parker as well as an engaging literary analysis of her work. This is vital because much of Parker’s work is out of print and little has been written about her important corpus of work.
There are many things to love about A Simple Revolution. The stories are engaging and well plotted. Grahn’s prose writing, known and beloved by many since her book Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds (Beacon, 1984, 1990), is lush and comforting. What makes Grahn so compelling? Is it the mind of the poet at work as a storyteller or the mind of a storyteller at work as a poet? The answer does not matter; Grahn delivers pleasure.
Many young women and men embrace Grahn; she inspires new generations of activists. Hopefully, A Simple Revolution will invite even more people to Grahn’s poetry, now collected in the Lambda-award winning volume, love belongs to those who do the feeling (Red Hen Press, 2008), and to her activism. In many ways, A Simple Revolution is both a memoir—this is what happened—and a do-it-yourself manual—this is how you can make your own revolution: build communities, engage in activism, write, think, and imagine new ways of being.
A Simple Revolution is a subtle and crucial book. Subtle in how it does its extraordinary work, in the attention that Grahn pays both to her craft as a prose writer and to her thinking as a historian and significant theorist of lesbian-feminist and gay liberation. Crucial in the stories she tells, in the pieces of history that dangle precariously on the edge of erasure, at risk of being forgotten. A Simple Revolution is a memoir to read and cherish; A Simple Revolution documents the life of a woman “faithfully serving that demon-lover: activist art.”
A Simple Revolution: The Making of an Activist Poet
By Judy Grahn
Paperback, 9781879960879, 269 pp.